Despite national economic troubles, the Irish technology industries are growing, game development among them. Gamedevelopers.ie co-founder and Irish academic Aphra Kerr explains why to Marcus Mac Dhonnagáin
Ireland is usually thought of as a magical green land inhabited by a leprechaun-loving, potato-eating, alcohol-swilling people. But there is more to the emerald isle than simplistic cliches, as it becomes an emerging player within the the indie developer space as well as the wider technology sector. A recent survey showed that the Irish games industry has grown by 91 percent since 2009. The amount of Irish indie studios increased from 13 to 51, with 2,802 people employed in the gaming sector. The report attributes this growth to a number of different factors; changes that were made to funding, the expansion of the digital sector as well as the growth of the internet.
Times have been tough for Ireland. The collapse of financial giant Lehman Brothers in 2008 had a major impact worldwide, which is still being felt today. After bailing out its banks in the same year, the Irish state nearly buckled under a weight of debt. The construction sector, one of the largest industries in Ireland, collapsed. Unemployment in the country currently rests at 14.8 percent.
This growth, therefore, is a very promising indication for Ireland’s indigenous games industry, and its future role in the Irish economy. It has been one of the few sectors to grow in a recession. Yet could it be a boon for the Ireland’s economy going forward, or is it a mere flash in the pan? What would need to happen in order to drive the sector forward?
Before the Games Industry in Ireland 2012 survey, the industry was smaller, and more fractured. It was in this space that gamedevelopers.ie was founded – a website that intended to allow for Irish developers to connect with one another to share information, jobs and provide information to students about how it worked. The site’s founder, senior lecturer at National University of Ireland Maynooth Aphra Kerr, began work on the website after completing a two-year project focusing on discovering what was happening within the industry.
Dr Kerr says, “I did interviews with all the people I could find in the Irish games industry at that point and what struck me is that many of them did not know each other, even though it was a very small industry. They were outward facing, as you would expect, but really didn’t have many connections to each other.”
Seeing the lack of communication between the different sections of the industry prompted her to take action. “I put together a proposal, I approached various funders and in the end it was Nokia and O2 who came together to fund the initial development of the website,” she says. “Two interns from Dublin City University, where I was based at the time, two multimedia students did it as their internship project.”
“So now we’re talking to various people, because it’s [gamedevelopers.ie] volunteer run, even though we get some support from industry, everybody who moderates and runs the site are volunteers and we’re now looking at how to port over the software to more up-to-date software, and how we could maybe update the website, to take into account more Web 2.0 technologies,” she adds.
Now more than ever, good communication and networking are an essential component to any industry. The website has undoubtedly played a part in bringing the different elements together, and is still one of the central hubs for the rising development scene in Ireland today. Jamie McCormick, the author behind the most recent report on the games industry in Ireland, is a regular contributor to the website. McCormick’s report hopes to serve as a benchmark for future growth within the industry, and identified a number of areas the contributed to its growth.
Dr Kerr explains, “There’s been good growth in the total number of jobs in multinational companies who have established offices in Ireland.
“The other thing has been a very interesting growth in small development studios – one-, two- three-person studios – and part of the impetus for this appears to be graduates coming out of the game courses now, that were all established around the 2000s, 2003 and 2004, all that time period.”
The Irish government has also had a helping hand in encouraging the sector along, she adds. Enterprise Ireland, a government agency responsible for supporting Irish business has allowed game companies to take advantage of its start-ip schemes – which has proven to be a boon to smaller companies in particular.
Yet, while there has been a thriving indie scene in Ireland, AAA studios haven’t grown in the same way. Though there have been one or two studios in the past, such as Funcom, which developed PlayStation games, there are currently no AAA developers working in Ireland. Recently, there’s been an effort to bring a studio together. Digit Game Studios is the most recent start-up in Ireland, and appears to be focusing on online games with its recently announced cross-platform MMO Kings of the Realm.
“They’re bringing in very experienced people to establish a studio in Dublin, which has both local and international staff and they’re going to be focused on development,” Dr Kerr says.
“They have been able to bring in staff, they have been able to grow and they have been able to get funding and that’s an interesting template of experienced foreign staff coming together with Irish staff and getting VC [venture capital] funding to kind of move to that middle- or larger-scale type studio. They’re just gearing up at the moment, they’re hiring, they’re establishing themselves and just starting to work on the new game titles.”
Ireland’s traditional industries, such as construction have seen a massive decline thanks to the worldwide recession. Since then Ireland has begun to look to alternatives, particularly the high-tech sector – of which games are a part. “I think there are a lot of fundamental building blocks that need, and have been, worked on, which might enable us to get to a position where we could be creating good quality, high-tech, but also other design creative industries to get jobs.”
Previous Irish governments even began speaking about developing a smart economy in Ireland, yet Dr Kerr stated that it was only now the conditions for that type of economy are emerging.
“There was a lot of talk about Ireland being a knowledge economy, a smart economy and I don’t think if you started to look into the actual resources in place, that they really stood up to scrutiny. Now finally I think we are starting to have a proper IT infrastructure in place, both for consumers and producers. I think with a focus on start-ups, and with a focus on job creation, we’re starting to see people thinking a bit beyond traditional industries for job creation,” she says.
“So yes, we will see types of jobs that are crossing across and where games might fit in. Games sit between areas where we have traditional strengths; like software, like hardware, tech and microelectronics, like design creative industries.”
Yet where could the budding Irish industry learn from? There are plenty of different countries that have managed to build successful gaming sectors, but some more successfully than others. Ireland’s location has always been one of its greatest strengths. Located between Europe and America, Ireland is often a gateway for larger corporations. The likes of EA and Apple have set-up support centres in the west of Ireland. This is a good strategy to incentivise investment from abroad, but in order to build an indigenous industry, Ireland needs to develop newer strategies.
“We’re doing that I think in terms of being a hub for European support centres, but when it comes to the content-creation end of things, I do think that Northern Scandinavia provides interesting models in terms of their supports.”
South Korea could also be a model that Ireland could learn from.
“They have been supporting their games industry now for over a decade and they applied national plans to support it. They have looked at introducing support at all sorts of levels, not just start-ups or companies, but they invested in their broadband, they invested in looking at game playing and game-playing culture.”
In order for these policies to be developed, however, the Irish government needs to take some initiative in order to create the conditions in which the games sector could flourish. Yet it has only been in the last few years that the Irish government begun to realize the potential that game development could offer in terms of employment.
“If you’re talking about an industry 12 years ago that was 300-400 people, they’re not going to be developing a policy necessarily for an industry with that number of people employed,” Kerr says.
“But various things have happened to refocus; I think and as people have become aware of the size of the industry globally, the possibilities in terms of the platforms, the types of content that can be produced.”
The university professor stated that perceptions of games have also begun to change in different areas of society.
“As we’ve gotten away from the early stereotypes about games and the games industry, I think there’s been a growing awareness – not just at government level and public agency level – but also in universities and more generally that actually there’s more to games than maybe we originally thought.”
Dr Kerr believes that what contributed most to this change of perception was the change in interfaces and the manner by which people consumed and interacted with games. Social games are an example of this.
“Now people could play a game without having been around for 20 years playing games and they could pick up a game like in Facebook or some of the other platforms, without ever having held a controller in their lives and that’s pretty interesting for somebody like myself who’s interested in media, cultural industries more generally. That kind of shift in interfaces and in types of content has been very, very interesting and has opened up all new avenues for creativity for developers and for game players.
“Now of course there’s tools and software available where people can create their own content and sometimes be able to share it, but not necessarily required. That’s also opened up new ideas and people have started to think what else these platforms and these technologies could be used for. So it’s quite exciting at the moment, actually.”
With all of these changes having taken place, the future of the games industry in Ireland is certainly brighter. The change of the perception that the Irish government previously held, as well as the incredible growth the industry has made in the past three years shows what potential it has.
“I think it’s not entirely sure where things are developing or going but things have definitely opened up. There are lower barriers to entry for indies. It remains to be seen if it can be sustainable, and how they grow and go on to create more and more projects rather than just one or two,” she adds.
Though the future isn’t exactly clear yet on where Ireland’s rapidly growing industry is going – and more work could still be made on bettering the conditions of potential growth – it’s an exciting time to be a game developer in Ireland.